You’re an elder or a sister missionary who has just stepped foot off of the plane ride home. The end of your mission is before you, and suddenly, there are looming decisions on your mind. What am I going to do for school? Where am I going to live? What am I going to study? You wonder. But, maybe most of all, your mind is stuck on what everyone told you was the next big step, the one you’re equally terrified and excited for: dating, then marriage.
Who are you going to marry?
The next months and maybe years of your life will be filled with an awkward stumble to figure that out. You’ll go on great dates that never turn into anything, bad dates that you never want to repeat, or maybe no dates, because frankly, you either don’t want to or are terrified to go on them. It may be smooth sailing, but, as it is for most of us, it will probably be rough. Mistakes will be made, feelings will be hurt, and hearts will be broken. Such is dating. It’s a learning process for all of us, and, unfortunately, it sometimes takes a while to learn how to do it right or admit we’re doing it wrong.
That being said, there are five pieces of advice I’ve used in my own life that I think every RM, and really, every single adult, could use to vastly improve their dating experience and make it more enjoyable for all involved. You might try them yourself.
1. Even though marriage is definitely the end goal, you need to put in time to get there.
When I graduated from high school and was starting college, I was immediately overwhelmed by neighbors and ward members who told me, “Now you’ve got to get married!” It influenced my dating life so much that it made me miserable. I took every date seriously, and when it didn’t work out, my confidence took a major hit. I naively expected that marriage would be handed to me if I simply went on dates, and because I expected that, I made marriage far more important than getting to know the guys I dated. I ended up dating guys who were in no way compatible or right for me.
As an RM, you’ve probably had similar experiences. Some of you probably expected (or expect) marriage to just happen once you started dating, and you’ve likely found that that’s not how it works. Others of you have perhaps jumped into serious relationships that did not end well because you were more concerned with getting married than actually loving the person you dated. In this instance, you have to think of dating in terms of teaching the gospel. As member missionaries (and I’m sure as sisters/elders), we are taught that the most inefficient and, in many instances, uncaring thing we can do for those not of our faith is to confront them with why they need to join the church before we even get to know them. You don’t lead people to enjoy the blessings of the gospel simply by telling them they need to be baptized. You do it by expressing love and compassion, by getting to know who they are and learning to love them. Dating, my friends, is a similar experience. You simply cannot expect marriage without being willing to put a lot of time into getting to know and love someone.
If being married is more important to you than the actual person you choose to spend eternity with, you’re building up to disaster. Seek out your desire to marry, but most importantly, concern yourself with getting to know and perhaps love those you date. All good things take time.
2. Use physical affection sparingly and meaningfully.
When dating someone you really like post-mission, you may really want to hold their hand or kiss them. Please take care to limit your physical affection and analyze your motives for using it when you do. Holding a person’s hand or kissing them early on at the risk of deciding you don’t want to date them later is not only emotionally confusing for the other person, but indicative that your intentions are not actually centered on the person you like at all, but yourself. Physical affection is a powerful way to deepen connection between two people, and without caution, too much affection and improper affection can lead to serious heartache and confusion. “Making up for what you lost in two years of famine,” as a mission is sometimes referred to, is reckless and selfish, and it can lead to greater mistakes down the road.
If you like someone, get to know them. Get to love them. Bridle your passions, as the scriptures say. Physical affection, when used as a way to express love rather than demand it, is the most beautiful thing in the world. Learn early to use it properly, and it will be far more rewarding than just handing it out.
3. Do not let your inability to decide become more important than your dates’ feelings.
Probably the toughest thing about dating for most of us is worrying about committing to the wrong person. That worry creates indecisiveness, which not only cripples us, but can wound the people we date. Fresh off your mission, you might really want to date someone seriously, but find yourself reluctant to cut off other options. Please be careful. It is unfair to lead someone on by dating them “exclusively” while still looking at your options. I’ve known many returned elders who, paralyzed by the idea of having to choose, seriously dated more than one girl at a time. I’ve been the girl whose boyfriend wanted to date other people at the same time. Not only is that extremely disrespectful and painful for someone who chose to commit to you, it does not prepare you in any way for marriage.
Do not run from commitment. Do what the Lord asks us to do. Make a decision about who to date, never mind the other options, and run with it until you feel like it’s either right and should go on, or wrong and should end. Then, when you do find out if it is right or wrong, be honest with the person you’re dating. Be completely clear about how you feel, but also be compassionate. If you’re a person who needs options, then consider and sift through those options long before you decide to make a relationship with someone serious.
4. Perfection doesn’t exist. Stop looking for it.
When we date, we need to let go of our egos and admit that yes, people have weaknesses. People are better at some things, and worse at others. They are often not as spiritually, physically, emotionally, or mentally strong as we feel we are. They likely did not spend the last two years of their life doing the kind of work you did. Too often, we judge them too critically for it. Stop it. Set down your checklist and consider the things that truly matter. Does this person love the gospel? Is this person trying their best to be better? Does this person make you better? Could you love them? If you can answer those questions with ‘yes’, then chances are, you’ve found, not the perfect person, but the perfect person for you to date. Pursue them. Forget yourself and go to work, because whether or not you’d admit it, you’re far from perfect yourself.
5. Fresh courage take!
Finally, there are some of you who have a hard time asking someone out or wanting to go out, let alone being decisive or affectionate. You’re intimidated by the idea of dating and all it entails — having to be vulnerable, the pressure of marriage, getting hurt, facing potential rejection — and because you are, you might not have any desire to do it. Don’t be afraid! The thing with dating is that, though it often hurts, it teaches invaluable lessons about who you are and who you want to be. It teaches you how to love, how to have social skills, how to forgive, how to be selfless, and how to be better than you are. Some people will say no. But don’t let that get you down. What good would it do the missionary who stopped teaching because of how often they were rejected? Better yet, what good would it do the person just waiting for a missionary to find them, the same missionary who would have found them, but gave up because it was too hard?
Keep trying. Press forward. A date isn’t a marriage proposal. Remove the pressure from it, and you might find that it’s a lot more fun than you thought.
Dating after your mission and dating in general does not have to be as painful or awkward as you sometimes make it. It’s a different field, a different area, and deals with a different kind of companion. But it can be just as fun, rewarding, and empowering if you let it.